Each year, a few weeks before Thanksgiving, Christian and Christine Hayes, owners of the Dandelion Catering Co. in Yarmouth, start putting the call out for nominations.

They’re searching for families who are financially or emotionally in need and deserving of the gift of an epicurean Thanksgiving feast – a whole turkey, brined and trussed by a real chef, and served with gravy; fennel, apple and pecan ciabatta stuffing; sweet potato casserole with brown butter and sage; cranberry sauce with thyme and rosemary; cauliflower with guanciale and breadcrumbs, caramelized onion and gruyere biscuits; and two kinds of pie, including a brown butter pumpkin pie.

This is the fourth year the couple has given away full, family-sized Thanksgiving spreads. The first year, their intention was to find a single family to help, but the 15 to 20 nominations the Hayes received were so heartfelt, and heartbreaking, that they chose three. They’ve helped three families every year since and are considering expanding to five or more.

The couple reads the story of each family to their staff, so they know who they are cooking for that year, but the names of all the families and the people who nominated them are kept confidential.

“It’s been a really special experience for us,” said Christine Hayes, 40. “We feel like we don’t have a lot to give, but we can always make food and comfort people with that. It feels good, as a company, to do that.”

Christian Hayes, 38, started the tradition because he knows what it feels like to be hungry and cold. Raised by a single mother without a lot of resources, he remembers days when there wasn’t enough food in the house, or enough oil in the furnace. “Holidays for me, growing up with no money, were always tough with my mom and my brother,” he said. “There were many times a neighbor would come deliver groceries, and that instilled the little idea of paying it forward.” The couple’s 7-year-old daughter, Fiona, helps deliver the meals. The Hayeses want her to know “how lucky we are, with a roof over our heads” and to grow up with the desire to give something back.

Nominees range from people who just need a break to “really terrible” stories of parents who have recently lost children and were planning on avoiding the holiday altogether.

“There are some where it’s like both parents lose jobs, there’s been a miscarriage and a foreclosure on the house – just absolute devastation,” Hayes said. “It puts everything in perspective. I guess what I didn’t expect was delivering (the meals), just how warm and grateful they are. It’s not like you’re walking into a funeral. They’re so grateful somebody thought of them.”

One woman who had recently lost a child was going to be traveling for Thanksgiving, so she asked permission pass along the gift to a family who had been on the same floor of the hospital; they had lost their child, too.

Hayes spoke with the second mother for a half hour, “and she just wanted to talk about her daughter,” Hayes recalled. “It’s like this fresh wound that we can kind of help alleviate a little bit. She said they weren’t even going to celebrate that year, but instead they had 10 people over, eating a nice warm meal and dessert. It was just really touching, really special.”

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